HIT CHANNEL EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: February 2013. We had the great honour to talk with a legendary musician and a fine person: Tony Levin. Tony is a pioneer on bass guitar, Chapman Stick and upright bass for more than 40 years. He has a very successful career as a member of King Crimson (since 1981) and playing with Peter Gabriel (since 1976). He has also played with John Lennon, Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper, Paul Simon, Tom Waits, Liquid Tension Experiment, L’ Image, Levin/Torn/White and of course, as a solo artist. He just released “Deep” album with his progressive trio, Stick Men (Pat Mastelotto of King Crimson on drums and Markus Reuter on Touch Guitar). In my opinion, “Deep” is the best album of 2013, that I have listened to, so far. Read below the very interesting things that Tony told us:
Yes, I am. Of course, we always have things we’d like to get better on an album, at least that has been my experience. Both with the writing and the recording process. You work very hard at getting it the best you can, but with enough time, there are always little things you could improve.
The important thing, to me, is that a release captures what is unique about the band, and that, hopefully, there is very good written material in it. I think we succeeded in both those areas –because we took the extra time (this time) to devote to the album.
Did you try anything in the studio for the first time during the recordings for “Deep”?
I’d have to go through my recording notes to be sure. I know, when doing ‘the whale’ part for “Whale Watch”, I pulled out some very old pedals I hadn’t used in some time (like Electroharmonix Graphic Fuzz) and combined them with others, using separate tracks – all to try to get the sense of underwater out of my Stick. Not sure how well I did with that, but it was fun trying!
And we have some video clips of Markus here in my studio, teaching me the part he had for me on a piece he’d written (“Hide the Trees”) and it was taking me ages to learn it. Kind of amusing now, since we’ve been playing the piece live on tour, and that part has become pretty easy for me. (And other parts from the album are much bigger challenges!)
Which way the songs from “Deep” album were written? Through jamming or each one did writing on his own?
It varies. As I mentioned above, “Hide the Trees” came from Markus, including some of the parts for me to play. He asked me to add a melody in the soft section… so it’s a piece that starts with one player and becomes collaborative. I wrote “Whale Watch” completely, but asked both Markus and Pat to add their own ideas on top, and it became, as I’d hoped, a much more vibrant piece. “Crack In The Skye” began as a jam, on a chord sequence I had in mind. The vocals came much later. “Concussion” is a piece by Markus. “On/Off” again Markus brought it to us, asking me to come up with a melody. Pat’s contributions to all songs are harder to explain, but he’s an integral part of the writing.
I’m no expert at social networking, or in fact at any kind of promotion — I tend to focus on the music and doing touring, which are what I love — the communication about the releases is just what I happen to do (of course, if someone suggests a new way, I’ll often try it). What helped us with this recording was using “Pledge Music” to ask fans to contribute to the process, and get some early copies of things in return. That enabled us to get better mixing, mastering, and other types of release features that we usually can’t go for.
As for the internet itself, I’ve found that having my web page is a wonderful way break down some of the barrier between performer and audience — letting people see what it looks like on the road when not onstage, and even, from stage, what THEY look like to us on stage. I’ve had a lot of nice feedback from my years of doing that, and millions of visits, so it’s been really a treat.
You recently finished another tour with Peter Gabriel. How was the atmosphere on and off stage?
Great fun, both onstage and when travelling. Of course, we’re all good friends, having toured together in the 1980’s, and with some of the guys many times since then. Peter himself is not just a super performer and artist, he’s a great guy to be around. I’m looking forward to next October’s tour in Europe, both musically and personally.
Did you enjoy the making of Levin/Torn/White album? Are there any plans for something new with those guys?
That was a wild project (as it sounds!) We felt very good about the music that came out of it – and it got great receptions from progressive music fans. We have no plans to tour with it, or to record again — but you never know, in this music business, what will come up. I do know that I’m immersed in making a different trio album for release late this year.
Did you feel any kind of pressure when you recorded Pink Floyd’s “A Momentary Lapse of Reason”, their first album without Roger Waters?
Interesting question. No pressure at all – I didn’t really think of the historical significance (maybe I’m just dumb that way!) I just went in with my bass, wanting to play some good music. It was really a pleasure to be part of such an excellent team making a recording — they treated me great, and it’s only because of scheduling issues that I wasn’t able to tour with them later that year.
Are you proud of the classic status that King Crimson’s “Discipline” album has?
I don’t spend much time thinking back about that release, or any albums from the past. (In fact, it’s only when doing interviews that it crosses my mind!) I felt good about the music we made then, and when I think of the 80’s incarnation of the band, the main thing to me is how lucky I was to be involved with such great, innovative players. Belew, Fripp, and Bruford each had an enduring influence on my playing ever since.
Were you surprised when you were invited to play on John Lennon’s “Double Fantasy” album?
I wouldn’t use the word ‘surprised’. You see, if you’re a freelance player, your whole professional life consists of being asked to step into new musical situations – so it becomes what you do. Whether the artist is famous or not, doesn’t matter so much to that kind of player. Looking back now, of course, there is a historical element to it that I can’t deny. Again, I was very fortunate to be included in that recording – very much by chance, and I do treasure it as a very special experience.
He was a lot of fun, full of energy and positive ideas. He was visibly grateful to be back in the studio making a record (ed: he was out of recordings for 5 years, since “Rock ‘n’ Roll” album, released in ’75), and had suggestions for all the players. I felt that there was mutual respect, and was, of course, very pleased to hear later in the recording process when he had the horns double one of my bass lines. His words to me, when we first met at the recording, were, “They tell me you’re good. Just don’t play too many notes.” “Don’t worry,” I replied, “I won’t”. So it wasn’t hard in any way to play bass on those great songs of his – and playing simple bass parts that are right for the song is something I love to do.
As a member of a local youth orchestra, you performed at the White House, in front of John F. Kennedy. Was that a shocking experience for you?
I was pretty young, so didn’t care much about how special the opportunity was – (we also played at Carnegie Hall on that trip, which was a big deal to Classical players in America.) The President, speaking before we played, give a very nice speech about encouraging the musical talent of the youth in our country, and how culture is important to a nation — hearing that many years later made me a bit sad that those values weren’t shared by many politicians here!
How much musically challenging was for you to play on Paul Simon’s “One Trick Pony” album and tour? You usually play more technical stuff.
As I mentioned before, I love playing the right bass part for a song – I don’t have a need to only play complicated or difficult music. And when it’s a Paul Simon or John Lennon song, the music is so special, that, very much like any music fan, I’m really focused on the song and how good it is — I fashion the bass part from some inside part of me that doesn’t require much thought. So it’s a natural process and I usually feel like I’m doing the thing I was born to do.
You have played on numerous historic albums. Some say that the current “death” of the album format (because of downloading) is a return to the beginning of the rock ‘n’ roll, when singles were more important. Do you share this view?
I hadn’t heard that, and don’t really have a valuable opinion on it. Sorry.
Is there anyone you’d like to play with and hasn’t happened yet?
Yes, Jimi Hendrix. Do you think it might happen?
I was really surprised when John McLaughlin told me that you were the first person he called to join Mahavishnu Orchestra, but you were playing with Gary Burton at the time. Could you imagine yourself as a member of Mahavishnu Orchestra?
I do wish I had done it. Funny how these things can really have a lasting influence on your career. The band I was playing with at that time wasn’t Gary’s, but a band called “Michael and the Trees” … It was a good band, but we never had any success at all.
Tony Williams (Miles Davis, Tony Williams Lifetime) came out from Boston and joined Miles Davis when he was 17. Do you think there are those kinds of opportunities today?
I’m sure there are chances like that today. But, like then, it requires being a very good player, and having some luck!
Are there any future plans about King Crimson?
At this time, no plans. I hope in the future there will be more albums and touring!
You have played both arenas and clubs. Where do you most prefer performing? Some say smaller venues are warmer.
Smaller venues are more fun, because you can see the people’s faces, and it’s easier to connect with them. Usually they sound better too. Of course, being part of a real big stage show is exciting too.
By the way, have you ever played with Jeff Beck?
I rehearsed one time with him, for a possible tour that never happened with me. He’s really great, and I’d love to play with him one day.
What kind of music are you listening to at the moment?
Lately I am going over our (Stick Men) new CD, Deep, to make edits for the web. After hours doing that, I don’t feel like listening to more!
You are playing with Steve Gadd (drummer for Eric Clapton, Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, Al Di Meola) for about 45 years. What’s the secret of this long-standing musical relationship?
We were in school together, and, yes, it’s been awhile we’ve been a rhythm section. I’m grateful to Steve for showing me, back when we were in school, how to play jazz with a better feel than I did at first. And it’s a great pleasure to do some live shows together once in a while.
A huge “THANK YOU” to Mr Tony Levin for his time and the very interesting answers.
I would like to thank the great drummer, Pat Mastelotto, for his valuable help to make this interview happen.
Tony Levin Official Website: www.papabear.com
Tony Levin Official Facebook Page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Tony-Levin-Official-Page/115321604133?ref=ts&fref=ts
Stick Men Official Facebook Page: http://www.facebook.com/stickmenofficial